Abject Terror and a Learning Experience


No noobie questions today, just a story with a happy ending.

My daughter is a senior in high school, working on a senior capstone project of composing and recording a short piece of music in the fantasy film/video game genre. Last spring, she conducted her school choir in a short a cappella piece. The plan was that she would orchestrate it and then perform it again this year at the spring concert. That plan fell apart due to student's busy schedules. Too many kids had multiple activities and there were no opportunities for the choir and orchestra to rehearse together. So, the project changed: the orchestration would be recorded using VSTs.

Of course, I'm not privy to any of this information. All the work goes on behind the teenager's closed bedroom door. Then on Tuesday morning, I received a text from Yvonne saying that "we" need to record the choir at school, Thursday at 8:30 AM. Two days to get ready. Aaaaaaaaaugh!

First problem: microphones. I've haven't actually done any live recording in recent years, just used Reaper to re-mix '80s-vintage 4-track cassette demos. So, I texted my neighbor Rob, who teaches audio engineering part-time at the Crane School Of Music (just down the road, in town). Score! Rob has an old pair of C451's and a twin mounting bracket that he was willing to lend me. I set it all up in the family room to confirm that my laptop and Scarlett 2i2 will power the 451's and luckily, it all worked.

Then last night, I got to thinking... what exactly was the choir going to be singing, and how did it relate to the moderately complex orchestral piece she has composed in Reaper? Were they separate pieces, or one and the same? Bad news: it turned out that last year's a cappella piece is now the last minute of a 2:30 orchestral piece. Gah! The choir has to sing in time (and in tune) with the orchestra!

I've never done anything like this before, and just know enough to know that it ain't easy. There's no way the entire chorus can monitor the orchestra parts: we don't have a monitor system nor 40 pairs of headphones, and we can't monitor with speakers because they'll bleed into the recording. So, we decided that Yvonne would listen to the orchestra on headphones, and conduct the choir a cappella. We would just have to hope that the choir-room piano was in tune with the VST orchestra, since they'd be getting their starting pitches from the piano. Since the choral section is only 60 seconds, long, we'd take the chance that they'd stay in tune from beginning to end.

I showed up at the school this morning at 8:00 and talked my way past the front-desk security. It only took a few minutes to set up the recording rig, but then I noticed a problem: I was only getting one mic, from channel 1 on the Scarlett, split to both the left and right sides of my choir track. It took me a few minutes to drill down into Reaper's routing table and figure out the right combination of red dots to give me my stereo recording. Fortunately, the teacher wanted to warm up the choir and practice the piece a few times, so I wasn't holding them up with my random clicking.

We took a shot at it. The first take fell apart halfway through; the teacher had rehearsed them at a slower tempo and the choir was dragging. So we tried it again, this time with Yvonne banging the tempo on the piano lid with one hand while conducting with the other. Then, the teacher suggested they run through it a couple time at a faster tempo, just to get them used to it.

Then we went for it. We recorded two takes, and they both seemed to come out okay. Yvonne the perfectionist seemed satisfied. I was somewhere between "pleasantly surprised" and "amazed". My kid really had no idea how difficult what she was doing was, she just went in and did it.

Now I need to give her a crash course in mixing, for which I am supremely under qualified. Onward!
Last edited:
Getting a choir to sing along to a pre-prepared backing is tricky. I'm pleased it worked out for you.

I'm not sure why you needed to go to the routing table in Reaper. Wasn't it anything that you could sort on the track's input controls?

Just recently I had to record a choir under similar circumstances, i.e. they were to sing to a pre-recorded track. I too worried about the logistics, but in the end I just set up a couple of monitor speakers and played the track through them for the choir to hear. I was expecting the track to bleed into the mikes, which it did. But I kept the level as low as possible and figured that it would be overwhelmed in the final mix. Which it was.
Well done with a difficult task.

A cheap trick I used a couple of years ago when recording a small orchestra to a pre-recorded band track: ask everyone to bring an FM radio with a pair of headphones. Most players used their cellphone's radio and earbuds.

I sent the headphone feed to a cheap FM transmitter. The quality wasn't wonderful, but quite adequate for the task, and the recording came out well.
One tip, or two really.

When I was the Principal Examiner for Music Technology for A Level here in the UK, I'd often get sent entries for me to consider because examiners had problems.

In the exam, the teachers sign an authentication statement. Words to the effect that 'I certify this is the unaided work of the candidate and any assistance is within the scope of the examination rules". This allows for a teacher or technician fixing a dodgy computer, or broken cable on a microphone - that kind of thing, and many candidates shot themseves in the foot by the way they filled in their supporting paperwork.

Your story is very typical of the kinds of things the students would write. If the candidate uses the word "we" rather than "I", some teachers get very worried, because they then have to lie when they sign the form. Some don't care, some faced with having to pretend the student really did do it unaided, bottle out, and panic. The we did this and we did the other type of log also flags up the problem to the examiner, who will see the teacher saying the student did it, and the log saying more than one did it. Often, the student then reveals their cluelessness in sorting the problem.

The candidate has a tricky line to follow to get out of this and needs to be mega careful, because it can influence the grades.

My favourite log revealed that the candidate went to a professional recording studio and was present while the recording was carried out. It was a very good recording. A bit of investigation and probing resulted in the school withdrawing her from the exam, rather than have the word "cheating" surface.

I appreciate your situation and it's quite common - but you put yourself in a tricky situation, and the teachers were equally stupid for allowing it, because the grade for your work is shared, and joint entries in any examination are extremely rare, because they spoil the result, and cloud the standard.

That problem with the routing, the teacher suggesting tempo changes? It's qualification by committee. She'll clearly come out with a good grade, which I'm sure she deserves, but my question would be about the kid in the class with a dad who has a non-musical background. Is it fair that candidate will get a worse grade because s/he had to survive not their own, and be left clueless about routing and no clue how to get the recording done?

It's great the job got done, and maybe the recording section you just did doesn't feature in the grades. Perhaps she only gets graded on the VSTi orchestral arranging, and the recording is just the presentation. I guess the mixing side could also have nothing to do with marks either. It's just a bit weird to get parents in doing this kind of thing.